Saturday, November 17, 2007

Seventh Post - November 17

Sorry for the delayed posting...internet problems, followed by malaria and lost data

Monday October 29, 2007
It seems as though a number of initiatives are coming together and I’ve been extremely busy the last few days…too busy even to do my morning or evening greetings rounds or sit in the kitchen (though I did venture out to sit next to the fire in the embers of the night just before daybreak today). Organizing the container materials from this end has been a big job, though I’ve had great help and several friends have been reassembling and upgrading the bikes. This morning the junior high students lined up at the community centre and then headed to the school, each with a box of books on his or her head. I’m working with a number of groups in three communities to write funding proposals for agricultural projects, and have been having quite a few meetings with NGOs, officials, etc. about schools or development issues. In between, I’ve been scouting out planting locations and will visit a swamp tomorrow that belongs to a friend. It’s next to a river, close to the school and not too long a walk from the home. Right now it’s underwater and planted with rice, but will soon dry out, be harvested, and ready for vegetables. Many friends have offered to come and help me brush and clear and find it very amusing when I suggest that I might do this myself.

Tuesday October 30, 2007
Tonight I thought I’d write a bit about food, as virtually all life here revolves around the growing, harvesting, preparing, availability and selling of food. While many suffer from food insecurity and have not yet replaced implements or inputs lost during the war, I’m told this district has the capacity for self-sufficiency.

So…eating. Each day the household prepares one meal of rice (either white imported or a delicious local whole grain) and a sauce (usually potato leaf and palm oil), which is served in a variety of different-sized pots, bowls, and basins (depending on how many people share the pot). When I decided I’d been a “guest” for long enough, I went to Magburaka to get the same kind of pot as the rest of the household uses (I had been served in a large “guest” pot). The meal is prepared in the mid-afternoon and, if you are judicious and like “rice that slept”, can be made to stretch for 24 hours by saving a bit for breakfast time. Drinks are water and occasionally coconut water or palm wine. I keep a bucket of water in my room which I use to wash my dishes (on the back porch) and to filter for drinking (compliments of Nazo’s water filter). I seem to get gifts of oranges, grapefruit, or coconut almost every day, and supplement my meals with these or with the occasional banana (peeled upside down) or papaya. Last week I was given a gift of three small eggs, which I boiled and shared with the chief and Hawa, who does most of the household cooking. On trips to town I pick up bread for the women, but am not too fussy about eating it myself. My friend Eleanor had given me oatmeal to bring as a gift to the chief, and on the last few days I’ve been delighted to enjoy a hearty bowl of sweet porridge during the morning (shared with about seven children who eat it with bare hands after I’m done). My neighbour sells rice pap in the mornings, and this is another option for those whose rice did not sleep through the night. Generally all food is shared and anyone passing by is offered some. Women and small children pass by constantly with trays of various kinds of food on their head and this is where many of our meal ingredients come from. Food for sale ranges from potato leaves to small tomatoes, okra, hot pepper, groundnuts, fish (pre-roasted or fresh), and occasionally a leg of some kind of animal.

Every family or community seems to grow rice, cassava, potato, groundnut, and pepper, supplemented with vegetables (okra, tomato, potato leaves or various cooking greens, eggplant). Virtually everyone in town works on a farm all day or after other activities (like volunteer teaching). Community members can be called on at any time to work on community farms and do so quite willingly. All day long from about 5:00am the kitchen area is used for processing crops…boiling, pounding, separating, cracking palm kernels for oil; cleaning, grating drying cassava for storage; washing and threshing rice, etc. Rice is harvested in small patches, dried on the husk in the field, threshed, cleaned, dried on a drying floor (cement pad or the highway or road) and sold, stored, or eaten. Each day a steady stream of women, men, and children pass by our back porch with heavy loads of cassava, rice, or other crops on their heads, and always stop to thank me, which I find so very ironic, as they have been struggling all day to grow the food I eat and I’ve usually been involved in minimally stressful work (like talking, traveling, meeting, sorting, etc.)

Wednesday October 31, 2007
Just on the edge of Mapaki, past the school, across a small bridge that spans a deep cool river where the children swim and fish hide lays one of the most beautiful rice swamps around. It’s nestled at the base of Kaifoima, the sacred mountain that’s home to an old forest where baboons and monkeys roam. I’ve often come by to admire this spot because of the vivid contrasting colours of the grasses and vegetation that grows there and the incredible skyline. Tonight I took a stroll to the swamp with my friends Benjamin, Usifu, and Kouame. The land belongs to Benjamin and when he heard that I was looking for a garden spot, suggested this might be a good one for me. Situated next to the river, it has a constant supply of water (crucial in the dry season when a lot of land can’t be planted). Also, being close to the school, I can invite the students to help me brush the land and build the heaps. I can hardly wait to sit in the cool shade of the small palm frond hut that I’ll build under three perfectly situated trees on the land --a mango, cotton, and coconut. Tomorrow I’ll go see the blacksmith to have him make me a cutlass (machete). Already I can taste the breadfruit that’ll be roasting in fire in the palm frond hut along with the fish I’ll be pulling out of the shade of the river. The next step is to talk to the chief, tell him I’ve found a piece of land I’d like to have and ask him to make a request of Benjamin on my behalf. I’ll be using the land to grow vegetables for our household.

I received a call from Bill in Canada while in the swamp. It was the most bizarre juxtaposition of contexts as I discussed internet needs and research proposals with someone halfway across the world while stepping along the raised path running between the rice fields and stopping to watch Usifu drop a line in the river while another friend cleared a trail with the cutlass and the small boys laughed in the river.

Other events in this very busy day… This morning we had a community meeting to present and discuss the container and set up two committees to help with distribution decisions. The interest in the bikes is absolutely overwhelming and everyone has a true and deep need for a bike (there will be a hotly debated and scrutinized application/ interview process). The women are looking forward to bike lessons and tonight young Adamsay borrowed mine to go to a neighbouring village (the first woman I’ve seen on a bike in the chiefdom). The women of the village have set up a ten-person committee to plan and create a women’s wholesale shop to eliminate the need to walk fourteen miles to the closest market and to generate some income for community needs. Meeting with the women is always interesting due to communication issues (our conversations are done through a translator…in this case, Ma Binty from a neighbouring village.) We took a look at the items designated for the women and there is huge excitement about all (especially the baby shoes sent by Sarah). All day, along with the customary “Momo!”, there have been invitations to stop by for palm wine or rice. On the other hand, I’ve also had to do a lot of explaining to friends who have made requests of me for particular items from the container (my standard line now is “it’s not my decision, talk to the committee”).

Just before discussing the container, one of the village elders pleaded with the community to postpone girls’ initiation until they are in their late teens, as early initiation tends to also lead to earlier pregnancy. This (girls’ education) was the theme of a whole day chiefdom workshop that also took place today. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been very surprised by the low number of girls enrolled in school in the upper elementary and junior high years and the large number of young girls with babies. Both of these are issues of great concern to the chief.

Between these two meetings, I met with the other cdpeace volunteers, had a very long talk with TMT over the phone, was interviewed for Radio Maria, met with the principal, and had many impromptu meetings with many people in town for the chiefdom or other meetings. Tonight I’m sitting in the chief’s parlour with four laptops going at once for the first time ever (with three community members who had never seen a computer before) while the night’s rain is gathering strength and is just about to burst through (these heavy rains should be the last of the season). As I typed this the heavens opened and all the people on the chief’s porch have come in out of the rain to join us.

Thursday November 1, 2007
Death again. I’ve been struggling to know why Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world and am beginning to understand. This morning the chief traveled to Massimbi after his young cousin died there two days ago during childbirth. I followed about an hour later on bicycle with Amadu Conteh, brother of Thomas, as I had earlier arranged to visit this community with the district councilor to see the community school they recently built. The seven mile ride there was, once again, phenomenally beautiful as it took us through narrow trails through the forest, plantations and the occasional village, over log bridges, and up and down hills with incredible views. Getting to the village by motorcar is virtually impossible and the community told of how a recent meeting with government officials had to be cancelled as the car couldn’t get close enough. Our first stop on arrival was to see Effie, the community nurse who serves about thirteen villages from her post. She showed me the health clinic, which had virtually no medications or supplies, a tiny room with a table where women give birth and not much more. When women run into trouble in labour, lack of transportation often means that mother and/or baby die, a problem common to many communities, certainly in this chiefdom and probably elsewhere. (I’ve been told by three different people in the last two days that due to historical/geographic factors, this chiefdom is one of the most challenged in terms of resources/services and social indicators of well-being.).

Both times I’ve been to the Makamray school, the teachers reported deaths that took them away from school. Today it was the death of the headman of the neighbouring village, a huge loss as he was the key person in many initiatives, and at Maso school, the death of a young girl in another neighbouring village.

While in Massimbi, I again heard stories of the impact of the war, a topic that has been coming up more and more lately. They explained that there are still only fifteen buildings left standing (the rest were burnt) and their stories of personal hardships rivaled those I’ve been hearing here (descriptions of how parents were killed, how people slept, found food, and survived in the bush, etc.).

Friday, November 2, 2007
I’ve just returned from another amazing bike trip, this time through back roads to Magburaka, the nearest town, with two friends. I wanted to see how feasible bike transportation to town would be (very!) and wanted to stop by the market to get food to cook for my friend, Theresa the nurse, who is leaving Mapaki for another post this week. I came back with three cups of binch (soybeans), five onions, and tomatoes. I’ll find rice and fish in Mapaki tomorrow and finish off the meal with palm wine and a papaya I have. On our return, just as we reached the village of Moria, the sky filled with pure black clouds, a wind whipped at the coconut trees and tore away the newly collected thatch and butterflies raced us for shelter on the porch of a friend. We waited out the worst of the storm with the butterflies and another family, collected rainwater for our parched throats, and carefully wrapped the perishables. With impending dusk and clouds of every colour and intensity as a backdrop for the hills and forests, I couldn’t take my eyes off the horizon and was happy when my companions wanted to walk the last leg. In Masayma, the last village before Mapaki, we stopped in to see Ma Binty as she worked on her farm with her mother, sisters and baby (actually they were all sitting around the palm frond hut, cooking a meal in the light of a amber sunset.)

This morning I delivered school supplies, bikes, soccer balls and vegetable seeds to the schools and spent the afternoon sorting through the remaining library and school materials. We’ve settled on a location for the library and solar panels and have a plan to provide electricity to both the adult literacy classes and student study barrie.

Saturday November 3, 2007
Typhoid, leprosy, blindness, Bob Marley….
This morning I stumbled into the room where the chief’s nephew is staying and found him administering an IV drip to himself. Foday is staying with us for a few weeks as he recovers from an illness that left him with severe headache and weakness. When I asked what the drip was for, he told me that he is being treated for typhoid and the drip was “flushing it out of my system”. This is the second person who has attributed headache to typhoid, which, along with malaria, seems to be a catch-all home diagnosis for a variety of symptoms. We talked also a bit about AIDS and Foday told me of a conflict that erupted in the hospital yesterday when it was suggested that a patient take an AIDS test. The nurse explained that AIDS testing was routine and pointed out all the patients, including children, who had received AIDS testing. From what I can tell, AIDS seems not a huge problem here and good work is being done in AIDS prevention (we have two full-time volunteers here for nine months doing health education with the youth).

Illness of the elderly and death of children, on the other hand, are big issues. This afternoon I traveled to a distant chiefdom on the school motorbike to visit Ya Kolonin, eldest sister of the chief, who is weak and in pain and is being treated (unsuccessfully so far) with traditional medicine. She is one of many elderly women I know who suffer from blinding pain and weakness. Having witnessed my mom suffer the pain of hip degeneration, and seeing no obvious source of calcium in the diet, I wonder how wide-spread bone degeneration of the elderly may be. Ya Kolonin is being cared for by a cousin whose eyesight has almost disappeared.

Blindness, it seems, is a serious ailment here as we live close enough to the river to be affected by river blindness, a preventable illness that was being addressed prior to the war. The chief tells me that several years ago after receiving some money for treatment, he gathered up many of the elderly and took them to Lunsar for eye operations and how people who had completely lost their vision were able to see again. Operations cost about $86 and the chief and I are strategizing on ways to raise money for a second trip for some of the 30 or so people who are blind. My hope is that this will be the last as a prevention program has recently been reinstated. I’m thinking of suggesting a Christmas “gift of sight” as $86 can reverse blindness ($100 would also cover transportation, food, and the purchase of reading glasses for the library).

As the road to Ya Kolonin passed by the leprosy hospital, on our way back we made a stop and talked with some of the staff and patients. This hospital which had been set up by the Seventh Day Adventists before the war now continues with a greater focus on tuberculosis and general health needs and is funded primarily by a Danish NGO. Patients are charged the equivalent of 50 cents for diagnosis and treatment and medications are free after that. It’s run by six nurses and a surgeon who visits when there are several operations to be done.

This evening as there was no fuel for “fire” as electricity is called, I sat out in the dark of the front porch and talked of music and many things with my three teacher friends while sipping my first cup of palm wine here. As it often does, the conversation turned to Bob Marley and his genius in touching souls across time and place. I managed to wire my ipod to small powerless speakers I brought and we sat out under the stars, quietly singing along with Redemption and No Woman No Cry and contemplating the depths of life, love, and injustice. (May 11, I’ve just heard, is widely celebrated in Sierra Leone as Bob Marley Day.)

Monday November 5, 2007
Viper, licorice, coffee…
On the last two days I took long bike rides to several communities. Yesterday, after going with TMT’s brother and Kouame to take a look at some land designated for an agricultural project, we stopped to greet folks at Maso, Malimp, and Mamaso. The trail went through footpaths too narrow for a bike, through a river, forest, plantation, villages, and fields. Along the way we passed a viper (the first dangerous snake I’ve seen), were consumed by the sweet odour of licorice or anise while brushing through some plants, and received gifts of bananas and a rooster in the tiny village of Mamaso. In Maso we stopped to see an elderly woman who was being cared for next to the kitchen firepit after she collapsed upon taking the medication she was given at the leprosy hospital. It seems that every day now there is a story of illness or death. On Saturday, a friend explained that his thirteen year old daughter had died three days before. Today the chief is at the hospital with a niece and nephew. When I first arrived I thought that people worried too much about minor ailments but have joined the others in assuming the worst for what I used to think of as minor issues (except when it comes to my own health, as I have no worries, feel strong, and am completely recovered from my stomach ailment).

Saturday was also the day that I “officially” handed over the container items to the women’s committee, which was a huge relief. The women are well organized and had lengthy discussions, agreeing on all of the potentially divisive issues. We wrote up a “memorandum of understanding” which was signed with the thumbprint of the committee chair. I have had very mixed feelings about the container, especially as I come to understand life a little bit in a community that has virtually no material goods. Many families live in one small room and are easily able to move to other locations as they are not burdened with goods. This also means that any small item is well used in a variety of ways and there is virtually no garbage (good and bad, as I’ve been unable to find a used tin can to hold my soap or a scrap of cloth to wash dishes). No garbage (or collection), road work that is done completely by community members, no electricity or piped water, schools that are built and run by communities, teachers who work for $5 a month (when the community can afford this)…I am starting to appreciate how very much we in Canada take for granted, especially in the line of government services. I’m also spending a great deal of time thinking about injustice….how it is that the global north has so incredibly much, how deeply rooted the systems to maintain this inequity are and how difficult it is to completely extricate yourself from these systems.

Regarding my feelings about the container, every single item, on the other hand, is so very much appreciated (all the women in the household covet my plastic bucket) and will be put to good use. A second container with nothing but bikes, shoes, pens, and notebooks would go a very long way (these are the most requested items).

Today’s bike ride was to Malai, where I was greeted by women and children drumming and singing (the only word in the children’s song I understood was “oporto” or white man, ironically), spoke and listened to community members outlining issues in education, health, and agriculture (the crops have failed this year perhaps because there has been no fertilizer since the war), stopped to see the mud brick community school which had collapsed due to lack of roofing, and visited with many elders and “mothers” (of Joseph, who lived in Malai for a year while recovering from malaria). As always I was overwhelmed by the discrepancy between the immense constraints people live with and incredible joy and generosity shown. Generosity and sharing, incidentally, apply to finances in the same way as they do to food. Regardless of how little a person may earn, money that comes in is quickly shared with or goes to meet the needs of others, making saving virtually impossible. This is a problem for a couple of friends, who have tried to save for tuition, permits, etc. (I’m offering short term savings “banking services”). Malai is also where I had my first taste of coffee here…a small sip of strong sweet brew from locally grown beans…I had no idea of how much I could come to love coffee!

This week I heard the news (BBC Africa) for the first time on a small solar radio I had put on the container. Sadly, I’ve been unable to repeat this experience. It reminded me of the many things I don’t have that I used to take for granted…had no shampoo for my first two weeks, saw no mirror until this week, still have no towel, have seen no newspapers, etc. On the other hand, it also reminds me of the joy that small things can bring…like the hunk of fishing net that I found to use to clean my dishes, the occasional papaya, my bucket, the book I found and read three times, etc.

Tuesday November 6, 2007
I tried unsuccessfully to travel to Makeni today to internet (Nazo and Kathleen’s birthdays are today and tomorrow) and instead finished organizing the container materials. Today the last of the bike applications are also drifting in and I just received the second one in which I was called “your highness”. I still can’t quite figure out my role here in the community, though am slowly being accepted as a contributing member. Last night the chief negotiated land use for me with my friend Benjamin and I look forward to being able to head off to the farm with my cutlass after my daily “work” like everyone else here. Last night I also found myself negotiating for a friend with the carpenter, which was quite a bewildering experience for me (lots of conversations seem to be mediated through a third person). With time, I suppose, I’ll settle into a more stable role. For now, I’m happy to be auntie to the children in the household, mother to some, “your highness” to two, sister to many, Kadiatu to everyone in Mapaki, and oporto to all the children I pass on the road from Mapaki to Makeni.

Thursday November 8, 2007
I’ve decided that Mapaki is the perfect place to recuperate from illness. Yesterday I took a trip into Makeni to help the principal access the internet (unsuccessfully again) and experienced a small bout of fever while there. Rode home on the back of the motorbike through the fog in the impending dusk and experienced a feeling cold for the first time. By the time I reached home I was tired, had a cough, and had that woozy feeling that comes with fever. Well, within minutes I was snuggled into my bed with warm pajamas, a big pot of lemongrass and ginger tea and a book. By midnight the fever subsided and I woke feeling refreshed and well. Auntie Hawa made me a second pot of tea this morning and everyone has taken great interest in watching me drink “native medicine”.

Saturday November 17
I have just lost nine days worth of postings... the short version...I had malaria and was wiped out for a week. Mapaki has suffered a terrible tragedy as four residents died in a tragic accident and several are in critical condition. We are all in shock.